In Search of Australia

This article first appeared as HVM Society Snippets – No.166

On the first of April, 2005, an HVM Society Bulletin from Peter Devenish claimed the discovery of a previously unknown HV Morton title: “In Search of Australia”. Sceptics in the ranks smelt a rat (or would that be a possum?), particularly given the date of this astonishing announcement. When Peter revealed his April fool prank some days later, relief and amusement abounded in equal measure!

Recently however I have come across evidence which shows, incredibly, “In Search of Australia”, written by HV Morton, was at one time discussed as a serious possibility.

For the following article I am deeply indebted to the Australian National Library’s fascinating “Trove” archive, containing over one third of a billion (!) online pieces, including books, journals, newspapers, maps and music. Trove is described on its web site as an “exciting, revolutionary and free search service”. The fact that it is also highly addictive isn’t mentioned, so be warned – I have spent many a pleasurable hour idly browsing though this rich source of material, greatly to the detriment of domestic duties!

With best wishes,
Niall Taylor, Glastonbury, Somerset, England

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Courtesy of Wikipedia


HV Morton seems to have been held in some esteem in Australia, so much so that on 5th November 1935 a letter was written by one E. Phillips Danker, Brookman Buildings, Grenfell street, Adelaide, South Australia, to the Adelaide Advertiser as follows:


Sir— As a practical scheme for advertising Australia, and incidentally our own State Centenary, I wish to suggest that Mr. H. V. Morton, the well known and entertaining travel- writer be invited to this country for the purpose of compiling a book on Australia. Mr. Morton has ‘discovered’ England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland (the latter twice), and has worked London to its limits. He has visited Palestine and now, we might presume, is looking for fresh fields to conquer. I think it is therefore very possible that he would accept an invitation for the Discovery of Australia. The publication of a book by such a popular author, while being a sound financial proposition for himself, would arouse interest overseas which would undoubtedly have a beneficial effect upon this country in the matter of potential trade investment, and tourists. For our own part, to see ourselves as others see us is always of value. Although we, in connection with our Centenary, should be the prime movers, invitations should also be extended by the other States. The fact that this book might not be published in time to influence Centenary visitors is unimportant, and is not the main issue

I am, Sir, &c,

This suggestion came at a fortuitous time for not only was South Australia holding its state centenary celebrations in 1936, but celebrations for the 150th Anniversary of the Commonwealth of Australia were due to be held in 1938, the same year as the Empire Games were being hosted in Sydney, New South Wales.

The impression from press clippings at the time suggests a strong feeling that Australia should use this opportunity to allow the wider world to know and appreciate what she had to offer as a country, and invitations were made to foreign film-makers and authors, of which HVM was one, to come to visit Australia in order to help with the development of this idea.

From what I can gather from the Trove archive, E. Phillips Danker’s suggestion was taken up and discussed, until a column in the paper summarised opinions on the 5th of November the same year, thus:

“… Both support and criticism of the suggestion were received yesterday from literary men in Adelaide. Mr. R. Irwin, representing the Friends of the Public library, said that if a man like Morton were to come to Australia and see the country, he would be bound to write about it. He appeared to see the best side of the countries he visited, yet his pictures were true to life. He would be a splendid man to get to South Australia for the Centenary. Mr. W. H. Langham, of the Public Library Board, said that he saw no objection to inviting H. V. Morton to visit Australia, but he did not think that the writer would accept an invitation. Morton appeared to excel in writing about countries with a history and tradition, a tradition in which he himself was steeped. He would hardly risk his reputation in discovering a new country like Australia. ‘We do not want discovering,’ Mr. Langham added. ‘What we want is criticism, such as might be dealt us by a writer like Aldous Huxley.’”

Then, on Monday 20 July 1936, The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW) carried this article on page 11:

Book by English Author Suggested.

“Mr. A. W. Hall, of Springwood, has written to the Minister in charge of Australia’s 150th anniversary celebrations (Mr. Dunningham) suggesting that Mr. H. V. Morton, writer of “In Search of England” and “In the Steps of the Master,” should be invited to Australia for the 1938 celebrations and provided with every facility to write “In Search of Australia.”

Landmarks 0116

Two days later, a letter with a somewhat more partisan flavour appeared from W. E. Fitzhenry, the Secretary of the Fellowship of Australian Writers who (understandably, given his position) felt if anyone was going to publicise Australia to a wider world, it should be an Australian. The title “In Search of Australia” seems now to have become firmly embedded in the popular imagination:

“… if those who are responsible for the 150th anniversary celebrations do decide to sponsor a work of such nature, there would be no need to go to the expense of importing a writer from overseas. We have in Australia a number of excellent descriptive writers who could be trusted to capture the spirit and beauty of their country equally as well as H. V. Morton has captured the spirit and beauty of his country in “In Search of England.” If we are to have “In Search of Australia,” let it be written by an Australian author. In case Mr. Dunningham is giving serious consideration to Mr. Hall’s suggestion, I recommend that he should weigh the claims of Nina Murdoch, Frank Dalby Davison, J. J. Hardie, Will Lawson, S. Elliott Napier, Archer Russell, William Hatfield, Frank Clune, and Ion Idriess, to mention just a few Australian authors whose names readily occur to me. Lovers of Australian literature will be able to name many others who could present the Australian scene as no stranger to our shores could.”

A week or so later came a response from one H. Macpherson:

“… surely most people will agree that H. V. Morton is the only one who will go in search of Australia, and find it, as surely as he found England, Scotland, Ireland, etc. He will not go in search of notoriety, and Australia and the world of readers will have a truthful account of his search. There is only one H. V. Morton, and Australians will see “themselves as others see them.”

– I am, etc.,”

An anonymous columnist summarised both positions on 1st August 1936 but came down in favour of a foreign author:

“The Australian National Travel Association’s invitation to the famous author of ‘In Search of England‘ is of the same character as the scheme whereby well-known American writers recently came here at the initiative of the association. The primary purpose of such invitations is to secure writers of high standing in their respective countries whose descriptions of Australia will reach a wide public there… For this purpose the merit or knowledge of Australian writers is little to the point, since they have not created a great personal public of British readers. The author of ‘In Search of England‘ has achieved this feat in the most striking way by the outstanding excellence of his various travel books. Certainly no Australian writer, and probably no other English one of the same kind, could command such a wide and attentive audience in the British Isles with a book upon Australia.

“An oversea author can also bring to our country a fresh vision and a new outlook, perhaps discovering beauties of which even we ourselves are not completely aware. For what do they know of Australia who only Australia know? It is quite possible that we ourselves, in such a case, may not always be able to see the wood for the trees… An experienced traveller like Mr. Morton also brings a trained observation and a breadth of view obtained from wanderings in many lands. He can thus avoid the superficial or distorted criticism of the country and people “down under” from which we have sometimes suffered at the hands of some oversea visitors in the past… Thus we hope that Mr. Morton will honour us with a visit, and we can promise him a warm welcome when he arrives ‘in search of Australia.'”

On the 4th of August, this invitation was confirmed, in The Argus (Melbourne, Vic.):

Guest of Travel Association

“Mr. H. V. Morton, whose articles “In the Steps of St. Paul” are appearing in ‘The Argus,’ may visit Australia late next year or early in 1938.

“He has been invited by the Australian National Travel Association. The chairman of the association (Mr H. W. Clapp), who is also chairman of the Railways Commissioners, said yesterday that Mr. Morton had been invited to visit Australia as the guest of the association, and he had replied that he hoped to be able to accept the invitation before long.”

Australia uid 1039743

Interested parties didn’t have to wait long, and on 10th August, The Grenfell Record and Lachlan District Advertiser (NSW), announced:

“Mr. H. V. Morton, the well-known travel writer, has accepted the invitation of the Australian National Travel Association to visit Australia early in 1938. “In the Steps of St. Paul” written by this noted writer, is at present appearing in the ‘Record.'”

Enthusiasm grew during the month of August with a column in “Advocate” (Burnie, Tas.) hoping that Tasmania would get a mention in the proposed work and stating, “… somehow I feel there would be much in our ‘Tight Little Isle’ to capture the fancy of H. V. Morton, who sees beauty and that which is very human all around.”.

The Australian Women’s Weekly of 15 August wrote, of Morton:

“His inimitable travel books have a flavor of their own, and as he is a keen observer and writer of infinite gusto the Australian scene should appeal to him… Australia is in need of the right publicity overseas, and visits by men of the calibre of H. V. Morton can do much to present us in a correct light to the rest of the world.”

Then, inexplicably, as far as I can gather from the Trove archive, things go disappointingly silent. It isn’t until nearly four years later, in 1940, that a series of short paragraphs start to appear in various newspapers across the country, of which this, from the Kalgoorlie Miner (WA), on Saturday 3 February, is typical:

Publicity for Australia

“Mr. H. V. Morton, the well-known British travel writer, will visit Australia after the war to seek material for further works. Mr. Morton has informed the Federal Government that he would have come here at once had the war not occurred. The Minister for the Interior, Senator Foll, said tonight that the Ministry would give Mr. Morton every assistance he might require. Mr. Morton is best known for his ‘In Search of . . .’ series of books…”

So it appears that plans for HVM’s visit “down under” were delayed to the point where war intervened, after which both Britain and Australia had other, more pressing, priorities.

The archive shows that HVM continued to contribute articles to various Australian newspapers throughout the war (“Night watch over England”, “Truth about army cooks”, “They man the beaches and the tanks”) and afterwards (“The Good Old (Pre-Austerity) Days”, “A pineapple problem”). The proposed visit, hailed so enthusiastically in the summer of 1936 and postponed to an unspecified time after the war however, seems never to have materialised; HV Morton never did venture “in search of Australia” – and I think that’s a great pity.

Further reading:
There are three fascinating video clips of Australia’s 150th Anniversary celebrations here.
… and some photographs from South Australia’s State Cenenary here.


Filed under Magazine Articles, Travel

4 responses to “In Search of Australia

    • Thanks Lisa, I hope your readers enjoy it – what a great pity there was never an “In Search of Australia”, it would have been great to have read HVM’s words on the subject.

  1. Greg Somers

    Great article Niall. It looks like the book would have been written by HVM if WWII hadn’t happened. It is interesting comparing how HVM wrote about peoples of other countries, like say, Italians in ‘In Search of Italy’ to how HVM observed Americans on English soil. Would HVM have been charmed by Australia’s characters?
    Thanks also to Lisa, I found this via ANZ LitLovers LitBlog.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it Greg – I’ve discovered since that there is actually a book called “In Search of Australia”, written in 1948 by P J Hurley. I might see if I can get a copy. The ANZ LitLovers blog is a marvel – so much material!

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